Growing up in South Louisiana, po’boys were just about as common as hamburgers are today. In small towns back then, we didn’t have a burger chain on every corner. It was mostly mom-and-pop sandwich shops and greasy spoon cafés that put out their home-cooked specialties, especially a down-home Louisiana roast beef po’boy.
I grew up in Washington Parish an hour north of New Orleans on the Mississippi state line. Located far from any saltwater, ingredients for po’boys were less about shrimp and oysters and more about meat. Ham and cheese, smoked sausage, meatball, and most especially, roast beef.
For me, a sloppy, gravy-drenched roast beef po’boy is the definitive statement of what this famous South Louisiana sandwich is all about. I grew up on one of the best around at a little joint called Capo’s in my hometown of Bogalusa. This Italian family knew the art of the po’boy and their roast beef po’boy had just the right balance of beefy flavor to crispy toasted French bread. In all these years, I’ve not had one as good. Until recently.
I’ve sampled roast beef po’boys in my Acadiana and found no clear winner, so I recently ventured over to New Orleans on my quest to reclaim my roast beef po’boy prize. I did my research beforehand and discovered the odyssey of local New Orleans restaurant reviewer Brett Anderson’s similar quest. A food writer I admire, I decided to follow Brett’s trail to the ultimate roast beef po’boy, but I clearly admit, I was determined to prove him wrong.
I began to see that Brett was right on several of the most heralded sandwich shops. The world famous tourist haunt Mother’s was my first stop and lowered the bar with their debris-infused version that was sorely lacking. Johnny’s in the French Quarter fell short. Even the acclaimed Parasol in the Irish Channel just didn’t live up to my memories. Nor did Parkway Tavern’s critically acclaimed sloppy mess of a roast beef po’boy.
And then I headed over to Brett’s choice — R & O’s. On the lakefront in Bucktown, R & O’s has earned its reputation as an Italian lunchroom that puts out a menu of wide-ranging New Orleans food including pizza, fried seafood, salads and red-gravy specialties of all kinds. And po’boys.
Let me say it clearly; R & O’s roast beef is po’boy perfection. As I simultaneously analyzed and devoured this masterpiece, it was evident that the culinary execution of this roast beef po’boy was genius on all three key levels – beef, gravy, and bread.
In degrees of importance, let me dissect this roast beef po’boy for you. First, the beef was not your typical cooked down until falling apart beef roast so typically found on most sloppy versions. The meat had the texture of a good flank steak or skirt steak slow-roasted and chopped into pieces, not shredded or sliced. And then the gravy was full of beefy flavor with the required thickness that blanketed the meat and soaked the bread at just the right balance.
And the bread–oh, my God–the bread! Leidenheimer bakery has over 100 years of history baking po’boy bread for good reason. One bite into this lightly toasted sesame seed-laden bread and you will clearly understand why. This bread holds up and provides the framework to construct this wonderfully wet sandwich without disintegrating into a soggy mess.
Let me say it again; R & O’s roast beef is po’boy perfection. Crispy, crunchy French bread dipped in rich brown gravy hugging a generous mound of roast beef dressed with shredded lettuce and ripe tomatoes and just a slather of Blue Plate is po’boy nirvana and a sensory overload for a Louisiana boy with childhood memories.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the detailed roast beef po’boy recipe from the good folks at R & O’s. So, I was on my own. As I experimented in recreating this sandwich with my Cajun recipe, I can assure you my version will never be as good as the real thing. Sitting in that Bucktown lunch house looking out the window at the lakeshore levee while devouring that roast beef po’boy masterpiece is hard to duplicate, but I will try. And after you taste my Cajun recipe version, then please make a pilgrimage to R & O’s for the real deal and let me know if I even come close.
Brett, I will never doubt you again.
- 4 pounds flank steak, tenderized
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 whole yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 cups water, plus more if needed
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon Zatarain’s liquid crab boil or 1 tablespoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 2 tablespoons flavoring and browning sauce, such as Savoie's or Kitchen Bouquet
- 4 individual 10-inch po'boy loaves
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- Sesame seeds
- 1 cup quality mayonnaise, such as Blue Plate
- 8 slices ripe tomato
- 2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
- Sliced dill pickles
- Hot sauce
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Season the beef with salt and black pepper. In a large black iron pot with tight fitting lid on medium high heat, pour the oil and bring to a sizzle. Add the beef and brown the meat on both sides until dark brown. Lower the heat and add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, parsley and bay leaf. Add enough water to cover the beef. Cover the pot and let simmer for 1 hour checking every 20 minutes to add more water if needed.
- Remove the beef to a cutting board. With a large knife, chop the beef into thumbnail size pieces. Cover and keep warm.
- In the pot with beef cooking liquid, remove the vegetables. Turn up the heat to a gentle boil and add the Worcestershire and crab boil. Make a slurry with the cornstarch and an equal amount of cold water. Add the slurry to the pot and stir. Once it comes back to a boil, it will thicken. The thickness of the gravy should pour easily, yet coat the back of a spoon. Add more of the cornstarch slurry to thicken or more water to thin it to the proper consistency. If needed, add a spoonful or two of browning sauce to darken the gravy to a beautiful medium dark brown. Taste the gravy and add salt and black pepper if needed. Add the chopped beef to the gravy and keep warm.
- Slice the po'boy bread in half lengthwise. Brush the tops with melted butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Place the tops on the bottom halves and onto a baking tray to bake in the oven. Heat the bread just long enough to smell the sesame seed aroma and crisp the top of the loaf. It should form a hard outer crust that when you tap it, it makes that distinguishable sound of hardness, but the soft inner bread remains moist and fluffy. Remove the bread from the oven.
- Open the halves exposing the inside of the top and bottom. Slather the bottom half with mayonnaise and using a slotted spoon, add a generous portion of beef and gravy on top. Layer two large slices of tomato on top of the beef and mound with shredded lettuce. Hold the top half of the bread in your hand and quickly dip it into the beef gravy to soak the inside and place on top to close the sandwich. Garnish with sliced dill pickles and serve with hot sauce on the side.
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